Pushing the Outer Limits of Humanity and Its Bearing on Space Travel: The Trans-human Quest

In a recent post, I noted E. O. Wilson’s rejection of the idea of possibly improving humanity, such as altering our emotional states. For Wilson, the only thing that separates us from super-intelligent robots is our emotions. See “Jesus ‘became what we are so that we can become what he is’–an astronaut, an alien, a trans-human?” Here’s what Wilson says in an interview with SPIEGEL:

Do we really want to improve ourselves? Humans are a very young species, in geologic terms, and that’s probably why we’re such a mess. We’re still living with all this aggression and ability to go to war. But do we really want to change ourselves? We’re right on the edge of an era of being able to actually alter the human genome. But do we want that? Do we want to create a race that’s more rational and free of many of these emotions? My response is no, because the only thing that distinguishes us from super-intelligent robots are our imperfect, sloppy, maybe even dangerous emotions. They are what makes us human.

Wilson’s response concerning what might be labeled transhumanist themes raises important questions for consideration, including in the arena of space travel, where some would argue there is warrant to “improve” humanity to survive extreme conditions in outer space. For Wilson, emotions are what make us distinctively human in contrast to super-intelligent robots, and so we should not alter them (would he still respond in this way if it were shown that survival in outer space required altering human emotions?). However, if we have evolved over countless eons from previous life forms, would there be anything wrong with us evolving to a trans-human or post-human state through our own volition? In my previous post, I found Wilson’s particular rationale for answering in the negative inadequate. Wilson’s response gives rise to other questions like, “What makes a person a person, and when does a person become a thing, or a thing a person?” I have addressed this subject in part in earlier posts, including “What Is a Person?” and “What Makes Someone a Person and not a Thing?”

What makes us human? Is it emotions, reason, relations with others, our ability to make and use things to enhance our lives? Beyond consideration of such matters as altering the human genome, do the things we wear improve our abilities to function, or do they transform us? While all species adapt based on their environment, humanity more readily uses ‘artificial’ or non-human instruments to do so. On a rudimentary level, we use such things as wood, stone and metal for tools for hunting and cooking. We make clothing to wear for various weather conditions. On more complex levels, we form eye glasses (some even wear Google Glass!), wheel chairs, respirators, artificial limbs, telephones and smart phones, computers and vaccines, automobiles and space ships to assist us in transcending certain limits. No doubt, these instruments benefit us in various ways. While they do not change us biologically, as changes to our human genome would, still they do impact us psychologically and relationally. Take for example Google Glass, a visual mechanism that allows people to process scores of information on the people they encounter, including passing strangers; use of the device raises key questions pertaining to matters of privacy. See “From ‘Glassholes’ to Privacy Issues: The Troubled Run of the First Edition of Google Glass.”

All too often, we define humanity in terms of our capacities, and not in terms of our relational interaction. While technology certainly assists us with connecting with others in a variety of means, it can also impair our relational interactions, including consideration of the divine, governance in society, and those less-fortunate.

On the importance of relational considerations when addressing the import of technology, Klaus Schwab, the founder of the World Economic Forum, claims that the digital revolution requires leadership that is more human. The fourth industrial revolution is a “system revolution,” not a “product revolution,” like the previous three. He maintains that “no one” is considering the “long-term consequences” of the breakthroughs in technology, such as with “robots, drones, intelligent cities, artificial intelligence, brain research.” Although others are indeed thinking about these things, Schwab weighs in on questions of what makes humanity distinct from robots, too:

If you thing about what a human being is, we exist because of brains, soul, heart. What we can replicate in a robot is a brain. But you never will replicate the heart, which is passion, compassion. And the soul, which enables us to believe. The robot will never have the ability to believe in something. So perhaps we will have at the end of this revolution—possibly, possibly—a basis for a new human renaissance (See TIME, January 25, 2016, page 28).

We will return to the subject of relationality in due course. For now, let’s consider the question of limits to technological developments, a point addressed by Wilson noted earlier in this piece. While humanity is quite adept at adapting to various environmental conditions in these ways, are there limits to such adaptations? What happens when adaptations become transformations, as in trans-human developments? Transhumanism can be taken to mean improving our human state, such as enhancing our physiological and psychological condition; it can also be taken to mean taking us beyond our human state, such as uploading minds to machines.

Does the move toward transhumanism complement or compete with religious notions of resurrection, ascension, reincarnation, and exaltation? I recently came across a Mormon trans-humanist association. See their video at http://youtu.be/VePRByRNIAc found at their website: http://transfigurism.org. It got me thinking if orthodox Christianity could affirm trans-humanism in light of a doctrine of theosis. According to my colleague Dr. Jon Robertson, an Eastern Orthodox Christian, Patristics scholar and author of Christ as Mediator: A Study of the Theologies of Eusebius of Caesarea, Marcellus of Ancyra, and Athanasius of Alexandria (Oxford University Press, 2007), “True humanity is not a limitation for the Orthodox, but a realization.” Does this understanding of true humanity involving the notion of theosis serve as possible grounds for trans-human research, a cautionary note, or an outright rejection of it?

The Vatican issued a statement in 2002 denouncing transhumanism. According to an article in Business Insider (Preetam Kaushik, “Transhumanism in India: Between Faith and Modernity,” in Business Insider, February 26, 2015),

Most objections to the ideology of transhumanism argue that it represents the extreme (and to them, unacceptable) human attempt to substitute themselves for God. In 2002, the Vatican issued a statement called Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, in which it is stated that “Changing the genetic identity of man as a human person through the production of an infrahuman being is radically immoral”. The same statement also argued that the creation of a superhuman or spiritually superior being is “unthinkable”, since true improvement can come only through religious experience (You can find the Vatican document here: “Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God.”)

The article in Business Insider also points out that left-leaning intellectuals, including Francis Fukuyama and Jürgen Habermas, maintain that transhumanism would impact negatively human identity involving such matters as our egalitarian, democratic, and social ideals, where outside forces govern our identity at the core of our being. For other articles weighing in on transhumanism, including definitions and ethical considerations, see: “Beyond Human: Exploring Transhumanism”; “Transhumanism and Space Exploration”; Dirk Bruere, “Transhumanism – The Final Religion?” at Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, July 16, 2015; Andre Evans, “2045 ‘Immortality’ Transhumanism Program Threatens Humanity’s Integrity,” at Natural Society, August 2, 2012. The Business Insider piece noted above also provides a helpful definition(s) of transhumanism. In addition, refer to the “Transhumanist Declaration”.

While not all those adhering to a form of the Christian tradition are opposed to transhumanism (See the diverse religious engagement of the subject, including Christian faith, in Calvin Mercer and Tracy J. Trothen, eds., Religion and Transhumanism: The Unknown Future of Human Enhancement {Santa Barbara, CA: Praeger, 2014}; see also the Christian Transhumanist Association: http://www.christiantranshumanism.org/), those belonging to Eastern thought forms are perhaps more ready to affirm it. Take Hinduism for example. Depending on the employment of Hindu methods and resources, its open-source orientation, yoga and reincarnation may encourage trans-human pursuits. See again the discussion of this topic in the article in Business Insider noted above. For more on Hinduism, see Christopher Key Chapple, “Hinduism: Many Paths, Many Births,” in Transhumanism and the Body: The World Religions Speak, ed. Calvin Mercer and Derek F. Maher (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), pages 51-65 (while the author does not appear to put forth reincarnation as encouraging transhumanism, I wonder if the doctrine’s claim that our souls are not wed to the same bodies in various cycles of life makes possible a religious basis for the move to transport consciousness and memory to artificial intelligence). One can also find treatments of other religions and their engagement of transhumanism in the volume.

Who would benefit from transhumanism? The poor, the disabled as in the case of the paraplegic Marine in the movie Avatar, the wealthy-abled who seek after immortality through the termination of aging or transfer of their consciousness and memories to machines? Would transhumanism further divide humanity into separate classes of people, even races—Mensch and Übermensch—based on who has access to such technologies, and who does not? How would the use of such technologies impact our engagement of extraterrestrial life as we explore the limits of space?

There are many unresolved questions to consider. Still, from a Judeo-Christian standpoint, it appears that what is most critical is how we approach relations with others here and abroad, and beyond in outer space, through technological means. Let’s consider briefly the movie, Avatar. The storyline merits consideration for Christians, no matter if the movie reflects Eastern religious notions, as some Christian critics lament. In the movie, the paraplegic Marine used his trans-human state for the betterment of extraterrestrial life forms whereas market and military forces from Earth also present on the planet Pandora had diabolical aims: they wanted to use technology, including the trans-human capability that made the Marine operable on Pandora, to subjugate the natives and commodify the planet for a mineral coveted on Earth. The Marine used the technology for good in benefiting and protecting the inhabitants of Pandora whereas the forces who sent him intended harm to the planet for their own selfish ends.

In “Jesus ‘became what we are so that we can become what he is’–an astronaut, an alien, a trans-human?”, I noted that E. O. Wilson thinks “we’re better off with no creation stories.” I beg to differ. Ancient creation stories can assist us with our futuristic explorations, since the quest to push the outer limits of our humanity has been with us from ancient times. Without proper relational safeguards shaped by creaturely limits, we readily falter. According to the narrative of Genesis 3, our desire to be like God—more specifically, autonomous from God—was our downfall. This tragedy included the devastation that resulted in terms of isolation from one another and our environment, as disclosed in Genesis 3:14-19. While God made garments for Adam and Eve to wear, helping them to adapt to their new condition, God also forced them out of Eden so that they could not take from the tree of life and live in their fallen, miserable state forever. Only as we account for a relational dynamic that pursues loving God with all our heart and our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31) in addition to stewarding well our environment in relation to God and one another created in God’s image (Genesis 1:26-31) can we pursue technologies that advance our state constructively. We must push against our fallen impulses, and push forward with exploring the outer limits of our humanity in wholesome ways. Otherwise, the transhumanist quest will not be able to safeguard against dehumanization.

About Paul Louis Metzger

Dr. Paul Louis Metzger is the Founder and Director of The Institute for the Theology of Culture: New Wine, New Wineskins and Professor at Multnomah Biblical Seminary/Multnomah University. He is the author of numerous works, including "Connecting Christ: How to Discuss Jesus in a World of Diverse Paths" and "Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church." These volumes and his others can be found wherever fine books are sold.

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